"Frenchmen Street is where the locals go."
So say reviewers on Yelp! and TripAdvisor, where tourists who have never been to town before recommend the street as an authentic New Orleans experience.
"Locals never go to Frenchmen any more."
It's the new Bourbon. So say jaded longtime New Orleanians, who remember when the Marigny street was a string of rundown live-music clubs that catered to neighborhood folks.
So: Which is true? Both, it turns out.
On July 25 — a Friday night — four Gambit writers spent nine hours on Frenchmen Street to get a feel for what a complete night on Frenchmen is like these days.
6:05 p.m. — Tourists with Big Easy Daiquiri cups round the corner at Decatur Street and stare up at Frenchmen nervously. "Let's go back to Jackson [Square]," says one of them.
6:13 p.m. — "Spare some change for bad habits?" asks one of a group of gutter punks in front of Check Point Charlie. "No? F—k you."
6:18 p.m. — Outside the firehouse at Decatur Street and Esplanade Avenue, a homeless man waters his dog from an outside spigot while a firefighter watches.
6:21 p.m. — Inside the doorway of the closed Cafe Rose Nicaud, a musician sets up his guitar under the watchful eye of a guy drinking fortified wine.
6:25 p.m. — Aaron Blanks sets up a table in the street near the Praline Connection and sets out his self-designed T-shirts advertising "Historical Treme."
13 Monaghan is completely empty, probably due to the fact that neither the air conditioning nor the signature frozen Irish coffee machine is working. A couple comes in looking for both and is directed to 13's sister bar, Molly's at the Market.
7:25 p.m — Adolfo’s, the tiny hidden restaurant above The Apple Barrel, is already slammed with people eating pasta, fish and steaks smothered in creamy “ocean sauce.”
7:37 p.m — Darmell mans his doorman post outside Miss Jean’s Famous Corner Courtyard. After 11 years working on Bourbon Street in positions ranging from doorman to security, he says he prefers Frenchmen. “You can’t get music like this on Bourbon Street,” he says. “[Frenchmen] is more grown and sexy. What’s not to love about Frenchmen? You can come and just relax. You don’t have to worry about people fighting.”
7:45 p.m — Theron Reese, a sometimes-bongo player with the New Creation Brass Band, grills oysters in front of Miss Jean's, $10 for six, $20 for a dozen. "Hell, no," he says when asked if Frenchmen is the new Bourbon Street. "Frenchmen is nothing like Bourbon," he says. "We do our own thing. You want music, come to Frenchmen. You want commercial bullshit, go to Bourbon."
7:55 p.m. — At Downtown Tattoos, a heavily inked woman with glasses and short platinum hair struggles to keep up with the rush. With only two tattoo artists and a queue of six customers, the shop is short-staffed. "The later it gets, the crazier it's going to be," she says. Eve Cammon of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is waiting to get inked. She's getting a set of coordinates tattooed on her rib cage, marking the location of the French Quarter. "I was a pedicab driver and a Quarter rat for a year, and I loved every minute of it," she says.
8:05 p.m. — Two couples enter Downtown Tattoos sipping daiquiris from Fat Catz. "We all have to get the same tattoos," says a man with camouflage cargo shorts and a strong Southern accent. "TCB with a lightning bolt." The woman at the counter quotes a price of $120. "Each?" he asks. "Do you do layaway?"
8:11 p.m. — A street musician named Jack Parsons drinks PBRs with his friend Gwen on the sidewalk outside the Apple Barrel. For a dollar, he performs an original Irish sea shanty.
The Frenchmen Art Market, a twinkly, twee paradise of star-like string lights and art oddities from wooden bowties to jeweled crowns, is drawing browsers. Booths sell items from the tourist-tacky to the sublime: wine-bottle art, incense, paintings and prints.
8:39 p.m. — Washboard Chaz performs on the tiny stage at The Spotted Cat. A group of bros — polo shirts, khaki shorts — comes in, whooping. One throws an empty beer can on the club floor and stomps it flat.
8:40 p.m. — A sign at d.b.a. informs patrons, "We don't serve Bud, Coors or Miller Light." A male patron wearing a V-neck shirt and fitted shorts interrogates the bartender about a beer. "It's a Belgian-style IPA?" he asks skeptically. "Belgians are usually foamier." A couple performs an elaborate, professional-quality swing dance routine. Nobody else dances.
8:45 p.m. — Outside the Spotted Cat, bouncer Anthony Carias gets a kiss on the cheek from pedicabber Brooke Paulus. She explains that he lets her use the bathroom in exchange for kisses. "Summertime is the slow time," Carias says. "We did start charging a cover last October, but we stop it for the summertime 'cause it's too slow. It's mostly tourists. It's like 70 percent tourists. Not a lot of crazy stuff. It's pretty chill down here. ... The last time I had to kick somebody out was six months ago."
8:47 p.m. — "I don't just suggest Frenchmen Street unless they're people I would want to be there, you know what I mean?" says Paulus, the pedicab driver. "The people that are a little raucous and that want the Bourbon Street scene, I want them to stay there on Bourbon. But the people who are really interesting and you can tell appreciate the music and the art and the culture of the city, I feel like I'm giving them a gift by bringing them [to Frenchmen]. ... I can see it shifting, but I think it still maintains its heart and soul. There's the great music, there's the faces and the people. Anybody can come here, but it will still be Frenchmen."
8:48 p.m. — An 8th District cop cruises down the street slowly, talking on a cellphone. Another cruiser follows two minutes later.
8:50 p.m. — "I'm from Madison," says a man at the bar of the Spotted Cat, chatting up two women in feather boas. The women are from Boston.
9 p.m. — The security guard outside the Christopher Inn Apartments argues about directions with a large man in soccer sandals.
9:05 p.m. — A drum kit spills into the doorway of Yuki Izakaya, where The Velvet Underground and Nico's "Femme Fatale" plays on the stereo. A group of 20-somethings wearing chunky glasses sings the chorus, then repeat the night's plans: "... then Finn's, then Kajun's," seemingly not realizing they're much closer to one of those places than the other.
9:05 p.m. — "Frenchmen Street's not losing its flavor," says Otis Fennell, the longtime owner of FM Books. "Locals sort of exited [Frenchmen] right before Katrina for a lot of reasons. The way to get the locals back is to develop a daytime market here. Louisiana Music Factory, some of the new galleries, those are helping. But we're totally dependent on night traffic. I sit here for 12 hours a day, and the best entertainment in town is on my corner, day and night."
9:22 p.m. — Painter Heather Kenyon is alone at her booth in the Frenchmen Art Market, waiting for customers. "I come here every weekend," she says. "This is one of my best venues. I've been in Baton Rouge banging my head against the wall 'cause it doesn't have the art scene like there is down here. It's the only nighttime market in New Orleans. Drinking really doesn't factor for me. I'd much rather a piece go to someone who's going to love it and not have buyer's remorse, especially if they've been drinking."
9:23 p.m. — Bamboula's is the cleanest club on the Frenchmen strip, and the most Disney-fied: bartenders wear matching shirts, the bathrooms aren't disgusting and the interior has been beautifully restored, from the tin roof to the tile floor. More bros in Mardi Gras beads (including light-up weed-leaf beads) are at the bar. Gypsy Elise and the Royal Blues is getting the crowd to sing along to "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone." Everyone seems happy.
9:37 p.m. — I count seven men wearing plaid shirts styled in varying states of nonchalance (short- and long-sleeved, untucked, half-tucked, rolled to the elbow) among the audience of a hip marching band called Consultation with Tubby at Blue Nile. "We know the spirit of Frenchmen Street because we live the spirit of Frenchmen Street," says a Blue Nile manager. "Places like us, Snug Harbor and d.b.a., we really built this street up over the last 10 years. The spirit of Frenchmen Street is hard to kill, and as long as the musicians maintain and embody that spirit, the street will live on. The second that stops, it will change to a point of no return, but this is not Bourbon Street. It will never be Bourbon Street. It's just going through some changes."
9:40 p.m. — A drunken bachelor party argues whether one of its number, Jamie, reads. "Jamie doesn't read!" they chant. "I get all the news parts every day and I don't even know what to read is," Jamie slurs in his defense.
9:50 p.m. — A man with thinning gray-streaked hair sits outside Electric Ladyland with crutches, a cigarette and a plastic cup of change. His left leg is tucked by his right leg, which ends mid-thigh. "Frenchmen Street is the nicest place to come to," he says. "It's got more class out here than Bourbon. Trying to get $3, I'm done. Get somewhere to sleep, take a bath. All I need is three."
9:52 p.m. — Outside Electric Ladyland, a couple from Slidell debates getting tattoos. They say they have no desire to go to Bourbon Street. When I ask to take their picture, the man simulates licking the woman's nipple, then tells me I look "eccentric."
9:55 p.m. — Brendan Nash, a glass artist, has set up shop outside FM Books selling pipes, pendants and animal figurines that he makes. "I get asked for drugs anywhere from five to a dozen times a night, and the answer is always no," he says. "I usually tell them to go to Bourbon Street."
9:55 p.m. — At the art market, Pippin Caldar-Frisbie sits under her tent, surrounded by prints of herons, decaying bayous and potential doom metal album covers that she printed at the New Orleans Community Printshop. She's wearing a tank top with one of her bird screenings. "I was from here, then I grew up in Maine, now I'm here again," she says. She has been a printmaker for 10 years.
9:57 p.m. — Doug Page helps runs the art market. He has set up a Lite Brite on a tea party-sized table. "It's a cool place to be at night," says Page, who's wearing brown-rimmed glasses and a Hubig's T-shirt. "You deal with a lot of drunks, but that's part of it."
10:06 p.m. — Carly Turner is standing at the counter at the Electric Ladyland tattoo parlor, waiting for customers. "Weekends are crazy, it's definitely our busiest time," she says. "We stay open till midnight. It gets too crazy after then. Anybody out on Frenchmen after midnight probably doesn't need a tattoo. ... With tourists there's a lot of the fleurs-de-lis, a lot of the Mardi Gras masks. But people, it runs the gamut."
10:07 p.m. — The Young Fellaz Brass Band plays to a crowd in front of the now-shuttered Cafe Brasil. About 100 people are on the sidewalk or in the intersection at Frenchmen and Chartres. Cars pass slowly, dodging more and more people who are ignoring traffic, drinks in hand.
10:08 p.m. — Young Fellaz sounds great — and loud. Three informal decibel readings of the band (performed with a smartphone app) all read 96 dB — six decibels higher than the 90 dB that the New Orleans' Musicians' Clinic says "may cause vibrations intense enough to damage the inner ear." Current city ordinance caps off at "10 decibels above the ambient level" or 60 decibels (whichever is higher).
10:10 p.m. — A group of young people in light-up headdresses and circus-inspired costumes dances in front of the Young Fellaz.
10:15 p.m. — Two party buses ("Club Wiggle Wiggle on Wheels" and "Boom Boom Room") roll past, playing DJ Snake and Lil Jon's "Turn Down For What."
10:15 p.m. — At the art market, several disheveled clowns dance near a portrait of Bill Murray.
10:19 p.m. — A middle-aged man wearing loafers offers bike-wielding crust punks his leftovers. "Does anyone want a free sandwich?" he asks. "Do you have any free money?" one counters.
10:20 p.m. — Inside Marigny Brasserie, things are more sedate. The six-piece James Jordan Band plays boogie-woogie and jump blues for six customers, a small but appreciative crowd. Behind the bar, a bartender in fedora, spectacles and bow tie is muddling mint. A patron asks, "Anybody ever tell you you look like [former U.S. Attorney] Eddie Jordan?"
10:31 p.m. — "The switch has been flipped on Frenchmen," says Frenchmen Art Market founder Kate Gaar. "The overflow (from Bourbon Street) — the tall green drinks and beads — comes in at 5, 6 o'clock."
Emerging from the darkness between two parked cars outside Washington Park, a man in a black polo shirt tells me, "Bet I can tell you where you got them shoes" and immediately keeps walking, disappearing into the night, the Lestat of street hustlers.
10:52 p.m. — The Alois J. Binder bakery bread truck (with "The Happy Baker with the Flashing Light!" printed on its back doors) is parked outside the bakery on the 900 block, where there's a harsh yellow light from the bakery's windows 10 feet above the sidewalk. Above the racket of pans and whirring machines is Cheryl Lynn's "Got to be Real" playing from what sounds like a 20-year-old boombox.
11 p.m. — David Blanton, a poet in a newsboy cap and flipflops, stares at his typewriter. I ask him to write a haiku and limerick. The poet from Pensacola, Florida tells me to wait 10 or 15 minutes.
11:02 p.m. — The James Jordan Band finishes. "Come see us Fridays at St. Roch Tavern," Jordan tells the small crowd.
11:05 p.m. — As she is escorted into a room at Electric Ladyland, a nervous woman tells a tattoo artist she's afraid of needles. She's getting a wrist tattoo.
11:15 p.m. — Aaron Blanks is still selling his Treme shirts. "I've been working since I was 6 years old," he says. "I operate the oldest shoe stand in Louisiana."
A bachelor party of clean-cut 20-somethings in khaki shorts and deck shoes with button-down shirts (party name: "Jones") from the Northeast is armed with Abita Ambers at 13 Monaghan. They just ate at Cochon. "The best thing ever," one says. "We saw Quincy Mumford at the Howlin' Wolf. Not a Mumford or his son, turns out." They stumble outside. Literally. One has crutches.
11:41 p.m. — Gilbert Moses Jefferson works security at the Blue Nile. "I've worked here seven and a half years. I worked on Bourbon before that. I'm from the Quarter," he says. "The craziest thing to someone else is normal to me. ... It's becoming more — it's not as local. It's becoming touristy. It's almost Bourbonish. I don't like it. But we're still going. I can't define weird. It's normal to me."
11:45 p.m. — A bachelor party is going into d.b.a., which is playing trance music. One of the party's members says: "The first bar that can hold everybody, we're going into."
11:34 p.m. — Andre Ned is Ukrainian and it's his second day in New Orleans. He's at Yuki. "Someone told me about Yuki," he says. "They also told me to take a cemetery tour. But seriously, if I tell people I am in a jazz sushi bar, what will people think about me?"
Midnight — A woman in a blue tube top asks the bartender at 13 for a frozen Irish coffee. The machine still isn't working. The would-be patron places her empty Fat Tuesday daiquiri cup and a pile of purse debris on the bar and leaves. The bartenders glare, then politely and swiftly collect her garbage and take turns free-throw shooting it into a trash can.
12:17 a.m. — A couple smokes weed inside a Toyota Camry on the corner of Esplanade Avenue and Frenchmen.
12:20 a.m. — Mike, wearing a visor and apron, stands outside Johnny's Jamaican Grill food truck parked on the neutral ground outside Dragon's Den. He's looking for work, he says, grinning with a big toothless smile. "They say 'Just stay still,' you know?"
12:27 a.m. — Two women begin to back out their car, which is parked on Frenchmen outside VASO, a huge, purple-lit "superlounge." The driver bumps into a black Mustang parked behind her. Two men drinking Red Stripe toss their bottles to the street and knock on the women's window. "Roll down your window," one man says. "You just hit my car." The woman drives off. The men follow in their car, speeding off down Frenchmen.
A woman leans against her friend as they teeter out of Snug Harbor on high heels. She immediately faceplants and spills her foam cup on the sidewalk. "We're OK," her friend announces.
12:37 a.m. — VASO is blowing up with constant foot traffic. A shirtless dude leaves and walks down Frenchmen.
12:45 a.m. — A man falls asleep at the bar at Dat Dog, the brightest, most fluorescently lit building on Frenchmen. An English couple slurs a request for three Dos Equis, a Coke and ice water.
1 a.m. — Emma Miron is panhandling on the street with her dog Tula. "I usually stand out here and sell Jell-O shots, but all my Jell-O shots went bad," she explains. "My dog really needs to go to the vet, I really need to pay my phone bill. I live in a squat right now with some other kids. I'm 28. I'm probably going to move down to Bourbon Street or a side street of Bourbon. Maybe people will be a little more generous or a little more understanding. Maybe because they're more drunk."
1:05 a.m. — The Big Easy Brawlers play Pharrell's "Happy" and Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" in front of a dancing crowd and two tired security guards at Maison.
1:15 a.m. — The men's bathroom at Maison offers mints, Extra and Doublemint gums, mouthwash, Kenneth Cole's Black cologne and L.A. Looks hair gel. The women's bathroom: mints, gum, several body sprays and three types of hairspray.
1:20 a.m. — Tanisha works the door at Maison. She dances in the doorway as crowds pass by. She has worked there for a year. "This is not a normal Friday," she says. "It's kind of slow."
1:25 a.m. — Smoky Greenwell blows harmonica as the frontman for his band at Bamboula's. A table of barely legal college boys in polo shirts and khaki shorts stare blankly at the band, or have their heads on the table, sharing space with half a dozen Pabst Blue Ribbons.
1:40 a.m. — A few staff linger near Bamboula's kitchen window. Behind it is an empty ballroom, with "NOLA" spelled in horns on its stage, one of the largest on the street. It's opening soon, one staff member tells me, as soon as it gets a liquor license.
1:45 a.m. — A couple — one in a Dr. Seuss hat and head-to-toe S&M gear, the other in a curly wig, corset and striped stockings — roam both sides of Frenchmen requesting spankings from strangers. They spank me without asking permission.
1:45 a.m. — VASO is in full nightclub mode, with strobe lights and hip-hop. A woman in an ill-fitting crop top dances by herself in the street outside.
1:50 a.m. — Rubens, a tall man wearing glasses and a striped polo, looks tired and frustrated as he stands outside Cafe Brazil Truck and watches crowds leave the street. "Thirty-five to 40 percent of business between June and August is dead," he says. "September to May is good. Now it's just the locals, and the locals don't have any money."
2 a.m. — New Creation Brass Band members outnumber the crowd at VASO. The dozen members onstage perform a lively mashup of "Just My Imagination" and "Isn't She Lovely" followed by Daft Punk's "Get Lucky." "Someone's gonna get lucky tonight," the band says, curiously followed by a brief chant of "pizza party!"
Two staffers at Spotted Cat escort an elderly woman in a red nightgown and pushing a walker from the bar to the back gate of the Christopher Inn Apartments.
2:25 a.m. — Steve, wearing a black "Don't F—k With The Cook" apron, sets up tinfoil chafing dishes, tubs of plastic knives and forks and paper plates and napkins outside the Praline Connection. There's a chalkboard of the chicken plates available. "We're out here periodically," he says as he collects a few dozen plastic forks he accidentally spilled onto the sidewalk. He points to Stoker Homeboy, a slide guitarist leaning against a motorcycle with tips filling his guitar case. "Just like he is, but with food."
2:37 a.m. — The band outside Cafe Rose Nicaud packs up and walks down Frenchmen, except for a trumpet player playing the Jurassic Park theme.
2:45 a.m. — Inside the Christopher Inn, the woman in the red nightgown checks Facebook from the rec room computer.